Source: Erik Magraken BC Injury and ICBC Claims Blog

Reasons for judgment were published last week with an extensive discussion of the principles of registered owner vicarious liability for BC collisions.

In the recent case (Bowe v. Bowe) the Plaintiff was injured as a passenger involved in a collision.  At the time of the crash the Plaintiff took his stepfathers car keys without permission.  They lived in the same household.  The Plaintiff contacted his cousin, who lived in a separate household, and collectively they took the vehicle.  In the course of the evening  the two boys drove around for several hours before the Accident.  Both took turns driving but at the time of the crash the cousin was behind the wheel.

The Plaintiff suffered serious injuries including a moderate brain injury.  A jury found the driver negligent and the plaintiff contributorily negligent.  A question arose as to whether the registered owner bears any liability in these circumstances.

Section 86 of BC’s Motor Vehicle Act establishes vicarious liability for vehicle owners when their vehicle is being driven by a household member or by anyone who acquired the vehicle with the owners consent.  The latter test was not applicable on these facts.  The court was asked whether the household member rule was triggered in these circumstances.  The applicable provision of the MVA reads as follows:

Responsibility of owner or lessee in certain cases

86(1)    In the case of a motor vehicle that is in the possession of its owner, in an action to recover for loss or damage to persons or property arising out of the use or operation of the motor vehicle on a highway, a person driving or operating the motor vehicle who

(a)        is living with, and as a member of the family of, the owner

Mr. Justice Voith found that, even though the cousin was not a household member at the time of the crash this provision was triggered and the registered owner was vicariously liable for the collision.  In reaching this conclusion the Court provided the following reasons:

[65]         It is important in this case not to be swayed by the fact that the Plaintiff took Mr. Boltz’s car keys without his permission.  This lack of consent, on the part of Mr. Boltz, is irrelevant, on a principled basis, to the intention and operation of s. 86(1)(a).  The provision is, instead, engaged in the first instance on account of the family relationship that exists between Mr. Boltz and the Plaintiff.  The Plaintiff’s own fault and contributory negligence, in taking the keys to the vehicle and in the events that gave rise to his injuries, are addressed by the jury’s specific findings on that issue.

[66]         Furthermore, the application of s. 86(1)(a) is not influenced by whether the injured party in a motor vehicle accident is an innocent and unknown third party who is struck by a vehicle or a passenger in that vehicle.  Under s. 86(1)(a), the same result necessarily ensues whether Dale struck an innocent person crossing the street or whether he injured the Plaintiff who was sitting beside him at the time of the Accident.  If the Defendants are correct, an innocent third party would have no recourse against Mr. Boltz.  I raise these matters because the result of this application must be consonant with the language of s. 86(1)(a) and with the object of that provision in the various circumstances that I have described.

[67]         The purview of s. 86(1)(a) clearly extends beyond those cases where a family member of the owner of the vehicle is involved in a motor vehicle accident while “driving” the vehicle.  It extends to cases where the family member is “operating” the vehicle.  How the words “operate” or “operating” are interpreted is a function of the meaning of those words and, to the extent different meanings are reasonably possible, a consideration of what meaning best achieves the intended purpose of the provision.

[68]         “Operate” in the MVA is, in other provisions, defined as having “the care or control” of a motor vehicle.  A somewhat extended definition of “operate”, found in the IVR, has earlier been considered in the context of s. 86.  That definition “includes” instances where an individual is in the “care, custody or control” of the vehicle.  The word “includes” in the IVR contemplates an even broader definition.  Furthermore, the specific words “care, custody or control” operate disjunctively.

[69]         In Hudson, the Court considered that the common sense meaning of “operate” extended to the “use” of the vehicle: see also Grey at paras. 9 and 10 and Barsaloux at para. 26.

[70]         In Morrison, providing access to the keys to a vehicle, albeit in the context of s. 86(1)(b), was associated with providing “the required degree of exclusivity of control”.

[71]         In this case, over the course of the evening, the Plaintiff and Dale drove Mr. Boltz’s vehicle and were passengers at different times.  When they changed roles, one would “drive” and the other would not.  This narrow set of activities only addresses the question of who was “driving” at different times.

[72]         When the Plaintiff obtained Mr. Boltz’s car keys, he initially sat in the driver seat and he held the car keys in his hand.  At that point, though he was not “driving”, the vehicle was in his “care, custody or control”.  I do not consider that that would change when he gave the keys to Dale.

[73]         To be specific, if the Plaintiff no longer held the keys he would likely no longer overtly have “control” of the vehicle.  He would, however, still have “care or custody” of the vehicle.  It would be open to him to ask for the return of the keys.  It would be open to him to require that they return to the Plaintiff’s home and that they return Mr. Boltz’s vehicle.

[74]         I posit an example that arises in a slightly different context but one that mirrors, on a principled basis, the circumstances of this case.  If a father gives his son his vehicle keys and his son, while on a trip, allows a friend to drive, while he sits in the passenger seat, can it be said that the son no longer has “care” or “custody” of his father’s vehicle?  Can it be said that he is not “using” the vehicle?  Based on the common sense meaning of these words, and on the authorities I have referred to, I do not consider that this is so.  To determine otherwise would be to make the words “drive” or “operate” virtually synonymous in circumstances where it is clear that the two words are both intended to, and do, have different meanings.

[75]         These conclusions are further informed by the intended remedial purpose of s. 86(1).  It is to be recalled that the “only policy reasons underlying s. 86(1) to be considered are those in favour of protecting innocent third parties seeking compensation for injuries suffered at the hands of negligent automobile drivers and, vicariously, owners”: Barreiro at para. 28.

[76]         Having regard to the foregoing considerations, I am satisfied the Plaintiff was, at the time of the Accident, “operating” Mr. Boltz’s vehicle notwithstanding the fact that he was a passenger in the vehicle.

[77]         This conclusion recognizes and gives effect to each of the words “drive” and “operate”.  It is consistent with the meaning of the word “operate” in the MVA and the IVR––a related enactment.  It is consistent with the object and remedial purposes of s. 86(1).  Still further it is consistent with the relevant authorities.

[78]         Based on this conclusion, and on the deeming provision in s. 86(1), Mr. Boltz is vicariously liable for the Accident.  There is no need to consider whether the circumstances of this case would establish vicarious liability at common law: Morrison at para. 23.

[79]         The Plaintiff is to have the cost of this application.

bc injury law, Bowe v. Bowe, Mr. Justice Voith, section 86 BC Motor VEhicle Act, section 86(1) motor vehicle act, section 86(1)(a) motor vehicle act, vicarious liability

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